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Farmers say, ‘No apologies,’ as well drilling hits record levels in San Joaquin Valley

By Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese

September 25, 2015

Original article:

Drive through rural Tulare County and you’ll hear it soon enough, a roar from one of the hundreds of agricultural pumps pulling water from beneath the soil to keep the nut and fruit orchards and vast fields of corn and alfalfa lush and green under the scorching San Joaquin Valley sun.

Well water is keeping agriculture alive in Tulare County – and much of the rest of the San Joaquin Valley – through five years of California’s historic drought. Largely cut off from the supplies normally delivered via canals by the federal and state water projects, farmers have been drilling hundreds of feet into the ground to bring up the water they need to turn a profit.

Two years after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to limit groundwater pumping, new wells are going in faster and deeper than ever. Farmers dug about 2,500 wells in the San Joaquin Valley last year alone, the highest number on record. That was five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state and local data.

The new groundwater law won’t kick in until 2020, and won’t become fully implemented for another 20 years. In the meantime, farmers say they will continuing drilling and pumping. It’s their right, they say, and their only practical choice given the government’s limited surface water deliveries.

“Just like a guy that owns a hardware store who sells nothing but shovels, say I cut you off and decide not to supply you with shovels, are you going to close your store or are you going to get shovels from somebody else?” said Wayne Western Jr., a wine grape grower near Firebaugh in the parched west side of Fresno County.


“It’s a business. I’ll make no apologies for trying to stay in business and being successful,” said Western, who’s been relying almost exclusively on well water the past three years. “That’s what we do here.”

Part of what’s driving the well-drilling frenzy is a kind of groundwater arms race. Aquifers don’t respect property lines, and in many cases farmers with older, shallower wells are afraid of losing water to neighbors who are digging deeper wells and lowering the groundwater table. So they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill new wells of their own. All told, farmers are expected to spend $303 million this year alone to pump groundwater, according to UC Davis researchers.

“Business is good; we’ve got plenty of work to do,” said driller Steve Arthur, who runs Arthur & Orum Well Drilling Inc. in Fresno.

On a recent weekday, Arthur was overseeing the drilling of a massive 1,200-foot well beneath an almond orchard in the tiny Tulare County community of Poplar. A few years ago, the typical well was only half as deep.

“These farmers, they’re learning if they go deeper, they’re going to get more water and they won’t have to drill as often,” Arthur said, shouting over the din of a drill rig. “If the government don’t give us any water, what’s the farmer supposed to do?”

The new well in Poplar cost about $260,000.

Arthur said he expects to drill about 260 new wells this year throughout the San Joaquin Valley. That’s about the same as last year, although the well-drilling industry isn’t quite as frantic now. Prices for new wells are off slightly, and some of Arthur’s Johnny-come-lately competitors – the so-called “drought chasers” – have left town. But Arthur, who farms 200 acres of almonds, said he thinks the well-drilling business won’t sputter anytime soon.

“When the farmer gets up in the morning, the last thing he wants to do is spend $200,000, $300,000 on a well,” Arthur said. “But if he wants to stay in business, that’s what he’s got to do.”

From 2012 through 2015, San Joaquin Valley farmers dug more than 5,000 wells, more than were dug cumulatively over the previous 12 years.

In Fresno and Tulare counties, where most of the drilling occurred, officials issued an average of almost 10 agricultural well permits every business day in 2015, though not all of those permits were used. That pace has fallen some in the first few months of 2016, but remains well above pre-drought levels. Tulare and Fresno are two of the three largest agricultural counties in the state, as measured by farm revenue.

As farmers ramp up drilling and install larger, more powerful pumps, aquifers that had quietly flourished beneath the soil for thousands of years are dropping at dangerous rates. It’s accelerating a phenomenon known as subsidence, in which some parts of the valley floor are sinking.

The problems of groundwater overdraft are most pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley, but they’re not limited to there.

“It’s a five-alarm fire in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Jay Ziegler of the Nature Conservancy, which has pleaded for stricter statewide restrictions on pumping. “But it’s a four-alarm fire in other areas around the state.”

The well drilling has exacted a substantial human cost in some of California’s poorest rural communities – the ones populated by workers who tend the fields kept green by all that groundwater.

Falling water tables mean underground pollutants become more concentrated, and in some cases municipal drinking-water wells fail altogether. By one estimate, about 30 percent of the communities in Tulare County have had problems with failing wells.

In East Porterville, hundreds of residents lost water in recent years. Tomas Garcia remembers the day in April 2014 when his shallow well failed. At work at a local tire shop, he got a call from his wife when their shower suddenly stopped working. What followed was a year of hauling water in 5-gallon buckets, to the point that the shocks on the family van blew out.


“No church, nothing. I was just hauling water,” he said. “I had no time for my family.” He also didn’t have the $55,000 necessary to drill down to reach the receding groundwater.

In April 2015, Garcia’s house was connected to a 2,500-gallon water tank that’s refilled by tanker truck once a week. Like hundreds of other homes in East Porterville, where some streets are unpaved and the sounds of barking dogs and braying livestock mingle with mariachi music, the black tank now takes up most of the Garcia family’s small front yard, an obelisk-like monument to the drought.

Just recently the town got a lifeline when officials announced it would be hooked up to the municipal water supply in nearby Porterville. All told, the state estimates it has spent more than $148 million bringing drinking water to Tulare County communities where municipal wells failed because of dropping groundwater levels.

One of the more recent crises flared in August in Woodville, a largely agricultural town of 1,700 surrounded by farm fields and irrigation pumps. One of its two drinking water wells suffered a mechanical failure that the utility district attributed to fluctuations in the water table.

Without enough flow to stave off bacterial contamination, town officials issued an advisory urging residents to boil water. It stayed in place for nearly three weeks before the well could be repaired. At the elementary school, across the street from a fruit and nut processing plant, signs on doors and above drinking fountains warned students, “Don’t drink the water.”

During the crisis, Ralph Gutierrez, manager of Woodville’s utility district, said that because there wasn’t enough pressure in the town’s waterlines, he had no choice but to cite residents he caught spritzing lawns and landscaping with garden hoses.

He noted with irony that even as he was fining residents for their water use, he recently counted 60 new agricultural wells just outside town during one week of his daily commute.

But the response he got was icy when he suggested to farmers at a recent community meeting that they accept limits on groundwater pumping.

“If looks could kill, I would have been crucified,” said Gutierrez, a familiar figure around town with his bushy mustache, weathered Dodgers cap and pack of smokes in his shirt pocket.

Others have pushed for local pumping limits, with similar results.

Kristin Dobbin, who works at a Visalia nonprofit advocacy group called the Community Water Center, has been pushing the Tulare Board of Supervisors to adopt a county ordinance that would put limits on groundwater. Supervisors have yet to cast a vote more than a year later.

Steve Worthley, one of the supervisors, said he’s wary of limiting groundwater pumping, given agriculture’s importance to Tulare County. Besides, there’s always the possibility that the rains might return and the groundwater pumping will taper off.

“There might become a weather pattern where we might be like Louisiana, where we might get more water than we know what to do with,” Worthley said. “So we want to be careful we don’t put into place laws that hamstring our ability to be the fruit basket of the nation.”

In conversations throughout the valley, it’s also clear that farmers seethe with anger at the government for not sending more surface water their way. While much of California remains unusually dry, precipitation levels returned to normal in Northern California last winter, bringing key reservoirs back to relatively healthy levels.

Farmers feel they haven’t gotten their fair share of that water. The reason? State and federal officials allowed more water to flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific Ocean during portions of winter and spring to try to revive the native fish species, including salmon and smelt, whose numbers have plummeted in the drought.

“The farmers need the water, you know,” said Kulwant Gadri, a Tulare County almond grower who’s spending more than $1 million this year on new wells. If an almond orchard goes longer than two months without it, “the orchard is gone.”

The situation is getting so dire, said Arthur, the Fresno well driller, that he questions whether the 2014 state law placing limits on pumping will ever get implemented.

“They stop drilling wells, they’re going to kill this valley,” he said. “They may never get this law going.”

State officials say the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will take effect. But, by design, it’s a go-slow approach and doesn’t directly put limits on drilling.

Instead, starting in 2020, newly formed groundwater management agencies overseeing basins deemed critically overdrafted must develop plans for making their aquifers sustainable within 20 years. “Sustainable” generally means districts must ensure groundwater basins don’t drop below their January 2015 levels, said David Gutierrez, who is supervising the rollout of the new law at the state Department of Water Resources.

Gutierrez defends the gradual approach, arguing that bringing a swift halt to groundwater pumping would cripple a farm economy that’s already struggling. After a string of record years, farm revenue last year fell by $9 billion statewide, in part because of water shortages but also because of declining prices in key commodities.

“We can’t afford to swing so quickly and so fast,” Gutierrez said. “We’re not going to turn it on a dime. ...We have to understand the social ramification of what we’re doing, too.”

The go-slow concept was driven home in the state Legislature this year. Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, introduced a bill sponsored by the Nature Conservancy that in effect would have put the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act on a faster track. Her bill, SB 1317, would have prohibited counties from issuing permits for new wells that would have contributed to “undesirable impacts” in critically overdrafted groundwater basins.

The bill narrowly passed the Senate, but failed to get a hearing in the Assembly amid significant opposition. Among those weighing in: the California Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau Federation and associations representing rice, tomato, cotton and citrus growers.

Back in Woodville, utility manager Ralph Gutierrez says officials need to act soon to prevent more wells from failing in other impoverished communities. He fears regulators are forgetting that farmworkers in these towns play as important a role in California agriculture as the groundwater farmers are pumping into their crops.

“Without farming, would this community be here? No,” he said. “Would the farming happen if we didn’t have farmworkers? No. So, you know, I don’t know what the answer is, but we’ve got to find a happy medium somewhere, because we can’t exist without the other.”



Take action TODAY to protect your groundwater!


Groundwater Action Team


Since 2014, over 1,600 homes have run completely out of water, making Tulare County the epicenter of the drought. But while emergency relief continues, our county has yet to address the root cause of the problem -- declining groundwater levels. In the same time period, more than 5,500 new wells were permitted to be drilled in the county, increasing demand on an already diminishing resource. This race to the bottom with well drilling is unsustainable and irresponsible, as highlighted in a story by The Sacramento Bee on the well-drilling crisis facing the county. The Community Water Center and our allies have been doing everything we can to ensure the Tulare County Board of Supervisors takes action to address this crisis.

We were told repeatedly that the Board would consider the three emergency ordinance recommendations before the end of August. That time has come and gone, and the Board has yet to put the item on their agenda. While the Board failed to act in August, Woodville's primary drinking water well collapsed, forcing them to issue boil water notices for three weeks, and more than 30 families ran out of water completely. These heart-wrenching situations are all due to rapidly declining groundwater levels. 

This is an emergency, and time is not on our side. More than a year of work has already gone into developing the recommendations that the Board is sitting on. We need them to act now to start the public conversation about this emergency groundwater ordinance.

You can help make sure the Board of Supervisors takes action to address our groundwater crisis. We're asking for the Board to put the emergency groundwater ordinance on their agenda and begin the public conversation that will allow all county stakeholders to weigh in on this important issue. We at the Community Water Center know we need a strong emergency groundwater ordinance that limits increased groundwater extractions until new regulations are in place to manage these shared resources for the benefit of all residents. But for now, we need the Board to even begin considering the issue. Read more!

The Board of Supervisors has the opportunity to protect the groundwater that every county resident relies on. Please sign up below to join our Groundwater Action Team! That way we can keep you in the loop with any developments, let you know if the Board of Supervisors actually puts this on their agenda, and other ways you can get involved to support sustainable groundwater in Tulare County!

CWC Launches Urgent Campaign to Protect Groundwater in Drought-Affected Tulare County

14414608692_6a58ae008e_z.jpgWith over 1,500 homes that have run completely out of water since 2014, Tulare County is at the epicenter of the drought. This month, CWC and are allies are doing everything we can to ensure the Tulare County Board of Supervisors takes action to address this crisis. We need your support to make sure the Board of Supervisors develops a strong emergency groundwater ordinance that limits increased groundwater extractions to protect our shared groundwater resources. The Board will vote on the issue this month, and we need to ensure they vote in favor of a strong ordinance to build community resiliency to droughts.

In the past two years, while thousands of domestic and agricultural wells have run dry, Tulare County has issued 5,495 new well drilling permits, allowing for rampant groundwater pumping with almost no oversight. As of this April, California has spent more than $148 million in state tax dollars for emergency drought relief in Tulare County alone, yet we are not any closer to addressing the root of the problem, declining groundwater levels. This race to the bottom with well drilling is unsustainable and irresponsible. Rather than allowing the situation to continue to deteriorate, taking us further and further away from state-mandated groundwater sustainability, it is time to be proactive. We must act now to build more sustainable and drought resilient communities for the future.

This month, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors has the opportunity to protect the groundwater that every county resident relies on. We are calling on the Board of Supervisors to develop an emergency groundwater ordinance as soon as possible that will provide tangible relief to Tulare County families and landowners by limiting increased groundwater extractions until the new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are in place and ready to actively manage these shared resources for the benefit of all residents.


Please sign up to join our Groundwater Action TeamThat way we can keep you in the loop and let you know about opportunities to take action on the issue. 

Waterwise: Supervisors should take overdraft water position

By Luis Hernandez

July 28, 2016

Original story:

Community Water Center’s Kristin Dobbin is calling on the Board of Supervisors to consider recommendations addressing groundwater overdraft.

Dobbin, who’s the center’s regional water management coordinator, spoke before the board on Tuesday, asking for the item to be placed on an upcoming meeting agenda.

“Time is of the essence,” she said. “The bottom line is that the board needs to take action.”

Local water district managers, water commissioners, representatives from the farm bureau and staff from the water center have been meeting for more than a year. There were three recommendations coming out of the meetings.

The most recent recommendation was passed June 15.

“That’s the time the Board of Supervisors could and should have taken action,” Dobbin said.

Over the last month, 80 domestic wells have failed. According to county totals, there have been 1,569 reported domestic wells failures since 2014.

“The supervisors wanted input,” Dobbin said. “It’s time to bring it back and make a decision.

While the first two recommendations called for immediate action, the latest called for status quo.

“That’s the confusing part,” Dobbin said. “[Commissioners] need to decide what language they want to do.”

On Feb. 8, the Joint Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee and water commission’s groundwater subcommission recommended adopting an emergency policy to consider the long-term impacts of new wells.

“We need more analysis of drilling,” Dobbin said.

On May 9, the water commission called for a two-fold recommendation also regarding water wells.

First, the recommendation calls for banning new well development on agriculture land not used in the last decade. Second, setting a minimum distance for a new well.

Dobbin used an example of how a lack of space between wells can affect a domestic well.

In Sultana, an agriculture well was installed within 300 feet of a backup well for service district. Dobbin said there’s concern the agriculture well will impact the domestic one.

“Their fear is it will draw water from the community well,” Dobbin said.

There have 5,434 drilling permits issued in Tulare County since Jan. 1, 2014.

On June 15, the APAC recommended no immediate action be taken. However, Dobbie said a decision should be made.

“We want to see an ordinance that’s inline with conservation,” Dobbin said. “We want to bring a policy reflecting the drought and with the reality of science.”

Supervisors will next meet on Aug. 9 and that’s when Dobbin wants the recommendations on the agenda.

More water center news

Susana De Anda, water center co-founder and co-executive director, was recognized as one of 10 White House Champions of Change for Climate Equity earlier this month.

Over the last 10 years, De Anda has worked with rural, low-income communities dealing with dry wells and increased drinking water supplies.

“The drought has laid bare the extreme climate vulnerability of rural, low-income communities in the San Joaquin Valley,” De Anda said. “At the Community Water Center, we’re working to ensure these residents are at the decision-making table so their communities can emerge from this drought more resilient to climate change.”

That’s where work needs to be done.

“Our communities are experiencing the impacts of climate change right now,” she said. “With climate change expected to cause more frequent and intense droughts, lawmakers need to create a sustainable funding source to address California communities’ long-term drinking water needs, including water system operation and maintenance costs. Securing a reliable water supply is crucial to advancing climate equity and ensuring that the frontline communities right here in California that are most vulnerable to this global climate crisis have a sustainable future.”

State officials praise De Anda’s selection.

“I’m delighted that Susana De Anda has received the White House Champion of Change Award in recognition of her leadership and tireless efforts to advance drinking water solutions for all Californians,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “I am sure she will leverage this award to continue advocating for additional funding sources, effective water policies, improved planning processes, and essential legislation to advance drinking water solutions for low-income communities.”


County looking at well drilling ordinance

July 27, 2016

Original story:


Some feel it will not go far enough

Tulare County District 1 Supervisor Allen Ishida knows the importance of water and farming, but he also knows the situation the county has found itself in with dropping well levels.

Ishida, who also chairs the county’s Water Commission, said an ordinance to place some restrictions on well drilling is being drafted and could come before the county board of supervisors by the end of August.

That is not soon enough for Kristin Dobbin with the Community Water Center who feels with more domestic water wells failing every day, time is of the essence. Also, Dobbin feels the draft ordinance she has seen does not go far enough to curb the pumping of the underground water supply.

Dobbin addressed the supervisors at their meeting Tuesday, saying she was concerned with the delay in getting the ordinance before the board and debated.

“We know the underground water draft is a crisis,” she told supervisors after saying another 81 wells have failed in the county in just the past couple of weeks.

Tulare County has been the epicenter of the water crisis in California, with more than 1,500 well failures in the past two years. While many of those have been fixed, there are still hundreds of wells dry, especially in East Porterville.
Dobbin feels an ordinance restricting new wells is needed, but is disappointed the county may not take that aggressive of an approach.

“We would like protections to be as meaningful as possible,” she told The Recorder Tuesday.
Ishida said what will go before the board are two recommendations. The first is to ban any well drilling on ag land which has not been farmed in at least 10 years. Another recommendation is for the county to hire a hydrologist to establish a buffer zone between wells — domestic and ag — so one well does not impact another.

The ordinance has been debated for months and according to Dobbin, the first recommendation of a joint meeting of the Water Commission and the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee was for the county to develop an ordinance similar to one passed in Stanislaus County, which she said is more restrictive in permitting new wells. She would like the county to consider a similar ordinance.

That Stanislaus ordinance, she explained, requires a process where a new well request has to be evaluated as to its impact on the groundwater supply, before it can be approved. Exempt are wells which produce less than 2 acre feet of water a year, but the evaluation would apply to almost all ag wells. Dobbin said the burden of providing that study would be on the applicant.

“We would like to see sustainability,” she said, adding they feel the county is getting farther away from reducing the dependence on groundwater.

The drought and a lack of surface water for irrigation has forced farmers to depend more and more on pumping water from the underground to keep their crops alive. Thousands of acres of ag land were not farmed in the past two years because of a lack of water deliveries from the Friant water system. Farmers got no surface water in 2014 and 2015. Growers are getting water from the Friant-Kern Canal this summer.

Another recommendation, said Ishida, and this came from the Ag Committee, is to do nothing and wait for the Sustainable Groundwater Act (SGMA) to go into effect, but Ishida said that may not be until 2019 or 2020. SGMA will limit how much water can be pumped from the underground and current figures are limiting the pumping to a half of an acre foot of water per acre, per year. That is far too little to grow a crop or keep and orchard alive.

The county, as are most counties in the state, are coming up with their water basins and plans how to implement SGMA which has a deadline of 2020 to have plans in place.

He said the state is telling the county it must do something now to reduce the pumping of the underground water supply which has been dropping for years.

“They want us to take action,” he said. “The state has told us they expect us to do something about the depletion of the groundwater,” he added.

Ishida explained what they are considering will not have much of an impact. It will mostly impact foothill areas used as rangeland where a grower may now want to put in a deep well and plant an orchard.

The supervisor said the ordinance will have a very minimal impact on the groundwater supply.

Dobbin said the county has an opportunity to pass a stronger ordinance which may restrict new wells, especially ag wells, and reduce the amount of pumping of groundwater. She said a stricter ordinance could help those residents whose wells are dry.
Ishida said the matter will come before the board Aug. 23 or 30 for direction. Then hearings will be held and the earliest the ordinance would take effect is around the first of the year.


Interim Groundwater Ordinances Needed

After four years of drought, we need to take local action now to mitigate impacts and protect our most vulnerable residents. With thousands of dry household wells in the San Joaquin Valley, our counties need to do a better job monitoring well drilling and addressing the negative impacts of virtually unrestricted groundwater pumping. Since January 2014, Fresno County has issued over 2,800 well drilling permits with few restrictions despite the adverse impacts of these new wells on rural residents in our fourth year of severe drought. Neighboring Tulare County has issued almost 4,500 well drilling permits since January 2014. Over the same time frame, 1,410 domestic water wells have gone dry in Tulare County.

The new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act sets us on a path to better resource management, but it will not be fully implemented for many years. Communities and residents facing complete household water loss need assistance now.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of applying for state funding to develop a strong interim groundwater ordinance, but the final application did not mention addressing groundwater overdraft with an interim ordinance. Fresno County reneged on its promise to residents. Fresno County needs to commit to collaboratively developing a groundwater ordinance to ensure basic human rights in a region where thousands of residents lack running water due to excessive groundwater pumping. 

Meanwhile, we're pleased that Tulare County is bringing together stakeholders to develop an interim groundwater ordinance. We hope this process will continue moving forward to ensure rural communities are protected from excessive groundwater pumping.

CWC and our partners are committed to passing interim groundwater ordinances in both Fresno and Tulare Counties that will protect our most vulnerable residents and set the County on the path toward sustainable groundwater management, as mandated by the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Fresno County Board of Supervisors Take First Step Toward Developing Interim Groundwater Ordinance!



On Tuesday, Nov. 17th, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of applying for state funding to develop an interim groundwater ordinance. This is a huge step forwards for a region where thousands of residents lack running water due to excessive groundwater pumping. After four years of drought, we need to take local action now to mitigate impacts and protect our most vulnerable residents.

Since January 2014, Fresno County has issued over 2,800 well drilling permits with few restrictions despite the adverse impacts of these new wells on rural residents in our fourth year of severe drought. With thousands of dry household wells in the San Joaquin Valley, our counties need to do a better job monitoring well drilling and addressing the negative impacts of virtually unrestricted groundwater pumping. At the Board of Supervisors meeting, Kristin Dobbin of the Community Water Center, Leticia Corona of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and Austin Hall of the Fresno Regional Partnership attended to testify in support of applying for state funding to develop an interim groundwater ordinance.

By voting to include funding for the development of a groundwater ordinance, the Board of Supervisors took a huge step forward towards protecting our most vulnerable residents and setting the County on the path towards sustainable groundwater management, as mandated by the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Once the funding application is approved, our next step will be to work with Fresno County to ensure the interim groundwater ordinance adequately protects our valuable groundwater resources and prioritizes the human right to water.  

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